Upstream Swimmers

upstreamswimmersI was asked recently by a colleague if I make stuff up for my blog.  “Some of your stories seem too crazy,” he said.

The answer is, no, I haven’t made anything up; I don’t need to.  There’s a world of rich material regarding management Lean faux pas.  I’ve only changed names and occasionally venues in my stories in order to protect the innocent – or sometimes guilty.  In fact, I’ve probably made enough blunders so far in my career, let’s call them learning experiences, that I don’t really have to draw on other people’s experiences.  I use those mainly as corroborating evidence.   And the further corroborating evidence from some my reader’s responses is a constant reminder of the elephant in the room: archaic management systems that reward counterproductive behavior – both in employees and managers.  Here’s’ a recent example, with links to some posts from the past.

Last week I commented to a client, that he should be suspicious when he went to floor to observe.  He objected that being suspicious of employees did not show respect to them.  “Oh, no,” I replied, “I don’t mean suspicious of the employees, I mean suspicious of the system that encourages their behavior and of the so-called standards that bound and judge their work.”  Hiroyuki Hirano suggested that the correct frame of mind for change leaders should be “The current system is the worst possible.”  This mantra was recommended as a countermeasure to defending the status quo, but at more than a few work sites that I’ve visited this perspective seems to have been literally accurate.  It’s mystifying how systems that are so clearly inhibitive to improvement can continue to exist.

If I pick on management from time to time it’s only to highlight the management  system shortfalls in which they also toil and to which they also turn a blind eye  That’s the elephant in the room.   Just as a front line employee may adapt to a broken wheel on a cart or a computer that must be re-booted hourly to fix a software glitch,  management will adapt to and accommodate a broken system.   For many of us, it’s easier to ‘go with the flow’ even it’s flowing in the wrong direction .  The so-called upstream swimmers are fighting a stiff current of obsolete policies.  Here’s to the upstream swimmers!  As I approach year four of the OldLeanDude blog (and 700 followers), I salute you all and thank you for reading and commenting.   You are my inspiration.

And for those few persons in management who are keepers of policy, a reminder:  You have built these up over many years.  They may be difficult to change, but they are not immutable – and they won’t change themselves.  Why not pick a single policy today that seems to be thwarting your continuous improvement and be suspicious of it?   Ask why five times, and help those upstream swimmers out.

Can you think of a policy, standard or norm within your work that would be a good candidate for the 5 Whys?  Please share it with us.


Reminder: My next FREE webinar, “Tea Time with the Toast Dude”, entitled Managing Up (click to read more and pre-register) is coming up Tuesday, September 10 at 3:00 p.m.  I’ve had many requests to weigh in on this subject.  And one lucky participant will win a free registration to our Northeast Region Shingo Conference in Hyannis, MA, September 24-25.   Hope you can join me.

5 thoughts on “Upstream Swimmers

  1. Deborah Morton

    I worked with a project manager early in my career and he was often quoted as saying “Only dead fish swim with the current.” I really appreciated that because he was always looking to be sure we agreed and moved forward for the right reasons, not just because we thought that was what was expected. He wanted us to speak up and share issues, concerns and opportunities to improve, even those of us who were “green”.

  2. Jason Stokes

    I’ve recently joined a new company in the LSS group. I’ve found myself asking 5 Whys frequently about many of our internal group processes, to both challenge the status quo and gain a deeper understanding of the steps that led us to the current point. From both respects, I’ve gained insight.

    I love the quote “The current system is the worst possible.” It’s going into my mental locker for frequent future use.

  3. Marty

    Here’s one. Why do doctor’s where white coats that rarely get cleaned day-to-day let alone patient-to-patient. Wonder how many infections get transported on those! I would think that a doctor would actually be better off wearing normal clothes since those at least get washed daily!

  4. Ulyett, Bill

    My favourite place to look is the financial accounting systems that are used to manage the organisation.

    Split up into cost centres, not value streams. Leaders incentivised to ensure that budgets are beaten

    (so some creativity come budget setting time) followed by no real need to ensure

    that team based improvements ever come to fruition.

    Add in Sorbane-Oxley rules (or more accurately interpretation of rules) and a perfect storm of inertia and

    poor performance.


  5. Pingback: The Road To Lean | Old Lean Dude

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